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Consumers support patients' rights  as long as they don't have to pay for them

Most Americans favor a comprehensive patients' bill of rights, but that support quickly wanes in the face of higher health insurance premiums, according to a survey released Aug. 30, 2001, by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Half of consumers would not consider it a "real" patients' bill of rights without the right to sue.

The telephone survey of 1,205 insured adults ages 18 to 64 shows that 81 percent of consumers support a patients' bill of rights, but enthusiasm for such legislation declines when potential consequences are raised. When told that health insurance premiums might increase about $20 per month for a typical family, that support falls to 58 percent. When told that employers might stop offering health insurance to workers altogether due to fears of being sued, that support falls even further — to 34 percent.

The survey also reveals that while a substantial majority (75 percent) say "health care issues should be very important priorities for the President and Congress," 8 in 10 consumers also say they don't know enough about the issues to explain the differences between the right-to-sue provisions contained in the proposal backed by President George W. Bush and the one supported mostly by Democrats in Congress.

Although their knowledge of the proposals is scanty, half of consumers did say they would not consider it a "real" patients' bill of rights without the right to sue. However, a clear majority (80 percent) say they are willing to accept limits on lawsuit damages.

Although the majority support a patients' bill of rights, only 7 percent ranked such legislation as the most important health issue facing the country. Consumers rated making health care more affordable as No. 1 (30 percent). This was followed by:

  • Making prescription drug coverage more affordable for seniors — 15 percent.
  • Making Medicare financially sound — 13 percent.
  • Helping the uninsured get coverage — 13 percent.
  • Helping families with the cost of long term care — 13 percent.

"After several years of Congressional debate, the public still supports a patients' bill of rights, but it's not their top priority and they are not focused on the details," says Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Politicians are unlikely to be punished at the polls as long as a bill passes that has some right-to-sue provision."

Satisfaction increases slightly

Conducted annually, the joint Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard survey takes the consumers' pulse to determine the degree of satisfaction with their health insurers. (The foundation is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.) The grades in 2001 varied little from those issued last year. In 2001, 62 percent of consumers grade their health plan an A or B, down just 2 percent from 2000. In fact, the percent that say health plans do a "good job" serving consumers has actually increased in the past year (from 24 percent to 32 percent), but is about the same as four years ago (34 percent).

The percent that say health plans do a "good job" serving consumers has actually increased in the past year.

Consumers' satisfaction with their health plans may have increased because they're "picking up on some loosening of restrictions" in the health insurance marketplace, according to Mollie Brodie, Kaiser Family Foundation's vice president and director of public opinion and media research. In the past year, many health insurers have made it easier for their customers to get access to specialists or designate their OB/GYN doctors as their primary care physicians, Brodie says.

Still, a sizable percentage of the public has a negative view of managed care. According to the survey, consumers are more likely to say that managed care plans do a "bad job" serving consumers (39 percent) compared to pharmaceutical companies (33 percent), or lawyers (29 percent). Only oil companies received a worse ranking (52 percent).

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